The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.
One of the few works I enjoyed reading in my high school English classes was Hedda Gabler, a play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The version I had was in a volume of four plays translated by Rolf Fjelde, though Hedda Gabler was the only one of the four we read for school. While digging through boxes of old books at my parents’ house last year, I rediscovered my high school Ibsen collection, and I’ve decided to spend a few weeks making my way through it.
The first play in the collection is A Doll’s House, arguably one of Ibsen’s most famous plays. It was published in 1879 and, according to Wikipedia, “is often called the first true feminist play.” A Doll’s House centers on the Helmer family and, more specifically, on Nora Helmer. Her husband, Torvald, her three children, her household staff, and several family friends and acquaintances make up the rest of the cast. The whole play takes place in the Helmers’ home.
As A Doll’s House opens, Nora is returning from Christmas shopping. She is light and cheerful, flitting around her husband, doting on her children, and fawning over an old friend who comes to visit. She seems the epitome of carefree. As conversations evolve, however, we learn that she is harboring her own secret, one of which she is rather proud but that she cannot allow to be exposed. As her secret threatens to surface, Nora tries frantically to push it back down.
I enjoyed A Doll’s House quite a lot. I started out really disliking Nora, who seemed to need all eyes to be on her and all conversations to be about her. She seemed silly and shallow. But as her secret came out, as Nora was forced to look at her life and make some tough decisions, I liked her much better. I think that, for her time, Nora would have been quite progressive, perhaps even scandalous, even if her actions today don’t seem like much. The rest of the characters fit the roles set out for them: doting and overbearing husband, wise older friend and confidant, et cetera. Against the backdrop of the characters around her, Nora stood out as she struggled against the direction her life was headed.
I also appreciate when a title is subtly tied to the story it names, the connection not immediately obvious but increasingly meaningful as you read the book. I think the very best example of this I’ve encountered so far was Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s One Amazing Thing. When the title kicked in for me, I was blown away. A Doll’s House wasn’t so earth-shattering, but it certainly was subtly connected to the play’s plot. I appreciate that skill in naming, as I’m not often particularly impressed by titles.
I hardly remember the details of Hedda Gabler, the only other Ibsen I’ve read, but the feeling I remember from Hedda Gabler is much the same as what I felt as I read A Doll’s House. Ibsen seems to write interesting, multifaceted, boundary-pushing women. He develops them well, allows them to change and grow. I don’t often enjoy plays, but I’m two for two with Ibsen, which bodes well for the rest!